Tag Archives: cargo biking

Christmas tree by bike, again

Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.

Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.

We need happi coats if we're going to join the mochi pounding crew.

We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.

On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.

P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped).  But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.

The tree at home and decorated

The tree at home and decorated

Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).

Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, Kona, San Francisco, zero waste

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

Last week I spotted the first EdgeRunner I’d seen in the wild. I did a double-take last weekend when I saw it again at the Botanical Gardens. Except that it had different stoker bars. Given that stoker bars aren’t an accessory that people swap out casually, I realized it was an almost-identical EdgeRunner. This bike has been available for what, a month? And I’ve already spotted two? Evidently I’m not the only person who found it appealing. I think this one is a Rosa Parks bike, as I either saw it again or there is a third (!) EdgeRunner in our usual haunts–yesterday morning when I got to school with my son there was yes, a black EdgeRunner parked in the school yard. What’s more, we had dinner with friends last weekend, and the mom, who is in the market for a new family bike, is coveting the EdgeRunner as well.

On Monday, when we were walking with Matt’s parents to brunch, we spotted another Xtracycled bike heading up the hill the other way. Although it was moving fast, I realized it was a Cargo Joe, the folding Xtracycle, and given the speed it was ascending Mt. Sutro and the low hum it made as it went, it was clearly an electric-assist folding cargo bike. We puzzled over that one for a moment, but realized that here in San Francisco, there are thousands of people living in apartment buildings that lack dedicated bike parking (or any kind of parking) but do have elevators. In a hilly city of small spaces, there is evidently a previously untapped market for an assisted folding cargo bike.

We have missed our Bullitt sorely the last few weeks that it has been in the shop.  With it, we don’t need to organize our lives around not having a car. Riding the bike is always better. But not everyone can manage the parking demands and expense of an assisted front-loading box bike, and in San Francisco, which has so few families, the advantages of the front loaders are less widely relevant anyway. As I watched that Cargo Joe glide smoothly to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the future.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Grocery shopping by bicycle

I consider grocery shopping to be one of least interesting things that I do by bicycle. Compared to figuring out a way to carry two kids simultaneously up and down steep hills, it’s not particularly challenging. I am always surprised to find out that the question of how I carry groceries is interesting to people. Even weirder to me, people who don’t ride bikes regularly typically assume that we must use car share to shop, because no way could we carry groceries on a bike. And I am thinking: dude, we did our shopping by bike even when we owned a car (as a California resident, I am legally required to use the word “dude” at least five times a day).

We live in San Francisco, which is not packed with the kind of giant supermarkets featured in suburban locales. Thus we are not once-a-week shoppers, because we pick up groceries here and there en route to other destinations. Last week, just as an exercise, we shopped entirely without the Bullitt, which can carry anything, figuring that most people do not have a cargo bike.

Trader Joe’s by bike basket: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, box of wine, fruit, crackers, vanilla (plus my lunch bag)

General groceries: There is a Trader Joe’s a block from my office. There is no point in driving to this location, which is the busiest in the entire United States, and where the line to park stretches dozens of cars back at all hours. I usually walk to the Trader Joe’s once a week during my lunch break and pick up things like milk, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. The Trader Joe’s near my office does such a land-office business that its produce is actually okay, so I will also pick up organic fruit on sale.

This week’s farm share (carried in one MinUte pannier): apple pears, arugula, turnips, carrots, persimmons, bok choy, leeks, kale, potatoes

Farm share: Matt takes a martial arts class in our neighborhood on Thursday evenings. On the way home he detours a few blocks to pick up our farm share produce. He transfers the contents into a pannier for the ride home.

Farmers market: strawberries, kettle corn, carrots, apples, oranges, grapes, coffee cake

Farmers market: Our farm share doesn’t provide much fruit, but our kids eat a lot of it, so on Sunday mornings I go to the neighborhood farmers market. My son’s birthday party was this weekend so I bought a full flat of strawberries for the party instead of our usual half-flat. I also picked up four bags of kettle corn at a local grocery store because the boys watched a movie during the party and requested it.

A farm share + Rainbow trip by Kona MinUte: produce and bulk shopping in the panniers plus a 25 lb. box of apples strapped to the deck, no problem!

Odds and ends: We are vegetarians so we don’t buy meat. We also don’t usually buy things like cereal and bread because we make them.  However that means that every few months we need to make a trip to Rainbow Grocery for staples like flour, along with occasional bulk purchases of olive oil, salt, grains and beans. We also stop by Costco (which is across the street from Rainbow) on roughly the same schedule for things like compost bags, toilet paper, and the tissues that we donate to our son’s school.

Historically these stock-up trips have been by car share if we’re with both kids (or if Matt passes by the neighborhood while in a business-related car rental), or by bike if one of us was going solo. Matt’s Kona MinUte can carry anything we’ve ever bought at Rainbow and then some, and it’s not even a full-sized cargo bike. Lots of people shop at Costco with ordinary bikes.

Five pizzas for a kid’s birthday party in the Bullitt is also no problem.

Our future bulk shopping trips will almost certainly be by Bullitt, because it’s more fun and has zero marginal cost. We haven’t used car share since this bike rode into our lives in the middle of last month. For our son’s birthday party on Sunday, Matt took the Bullitt to pick up five pizzas. A load like that isn’t even a challenge for a bike like this.

If you get a real cargo bike your ambitions scale up accordingly. But even with just a midtail and our limited ambitions, we have carried a Christmas tree, two kids and their gear, each other, and the Brompton. A week or even a month’s worth of groceries barely ranks on this scale. Ride on, shoppers.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

A series of electric assists

This is the first assisted bike I ever rode, a Surly Big Dummy with BionX.

I first tried a bike with an electric assist last March, just over six months ago, a BionX assisted Surly Big Dummy at Splendid Cycles in Portland. It made quite an impression. Later I tried a mid-drive assist at The New Wheel in San Francisco. Then I tried another mid-drive assist and a front hub motor.  Less than a year ago, I could not have identified the difference between these assists with schematic diagrams and prompts from their designers. I wish I knew then what I know now.

The electric assists I have tried:

  • A front hub motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (eZee)
  • A mid-drive motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (EcoSpeed)
  • A mid-drive pedal-assist motor (Panasonic)
  • A rear hub pedal-assist motor that responds to torque (BionX)

I have pretty strong feelings about what kind of assist I prefer after trying all of these (BionX, although it’s not perfect). Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, but wish you did because you’ve been hearing about this electric assist thing and it sounds kind of cool, but you couldn’t pick an electric assist bike out of a lineup. Read on, friend.

General thoughts

Electric assist bicycles are interesting because they are true car replacements for ordinary people. I have met lots of committed, fiercely strong riders who not only ride to work and for errands and on weekends, but also head for the steepest grades in the city to improve their hill-climbing chops. These guys (they are almost always men) are inspiring, but your average mom of two isn’t going to look at them and say: “Yeah! That could be me!” But put an electric assist on a cargo bike and you are looking at a transportation system that can haul the kids, handle a week’s worth of groceries, dodge traffic, and park right next to the front door of any destination in the city—at the same time. All of this for minimal operating and capital costs, plus enough exercise that you no longer get depressed about not making it to the gym since the kids were born. Many of the factors that make riding a bike seem intimidating—I can’t sweat because I need to look decent for work, no way can I make it up that hill, how am I going to carry the kids, I can’t handle the wind—disappear with an assist. All that’s left to worry about is wet weather. I personally got some waterproof outerwear and found out that I liked riding in the rain, but if I had hated it, heck, we could rent a car on every rainy day in San Francisco without coming close to the cost of owning a car. (In other climates people worry about snow, but from what I’ve read this involves getting some studded winter tires and a cover for the kids and then you’re good.)

Some people like throttle assists (operated by a grip on the handlebar, independent of pedaling) and some people like pedal assists (which multiply your effort as you pedal). My anecdotal impression is that people who come to electric bikes from bikes prefer a pedal assist because it feels like riding a bike. Whereas people I’ve met who ride both bicycles and mopeds, or bicycles and motorcycles, seem to prefer having a throttle. Everybody likes what’s familiar. I came to electric bikes from riding a bicycle as my kids’ weights edged up toward 100 lbs. I didn’t care for the throttle assists I tried.

None of the electric assist systems cost much to charge. Efforts I’ve seen to estimate power costs sort of peter out because they’re so trivial. NYCE Wheels, which sells a lot of assisted bikes and has some great articles on their website about the technology, estimated the cost per charge at maybe 18 cents in New York City, but of course prices depend on local rates. The better systems estimate that a charge can carry an assisted bike at the highest level of assist for 20-45 miles.

Currently there are three kinds of batteries that can power the motor on the market (that I know of): sealed lead acid (SLA), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd), and lithium-ion polymer (LiPo). The technology for batteries on electric assists is still considered somewhat experimental. Getting the longest possible warranty from a reputable manufacturer is a really good idea. Expect the battery to last only a little longer than the warranty and you won’t be disappointed. Battery replacement is the true cost of maintaining an assisted bike. Compared to the costs of maintaining a car, it’s still bupkis: with a good warranty, it will run $500-$900 every two years at the most.

  • SLA batteries are the least inexpensive electric assist battery. They’re incredibly heavy and take several hours to charge. Bikes with these batteries tend to have limited range (maybe 5 miles). When SLA batteries won’t hold a charge anymore, they have to be disposed as hazardous waste. These batteries are common on e-bikes in China. If you buy an e-bike at a big box store it will have an SLA battery, and it won’t last long. You’ll be replacing entire bikes more frequently than other people replace their bike’s batteries.
  • NiMH (more common) and NiCd (less common) batteries are somewhat more expensive, still heavy, and bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (maybe 10 miles). They were considered an upgrade from SLA batteries at one time, but they have their little issues. One of these is charge memory; occasionally you have to drain the battery down or it will stop fully recharging, and you won’t be able to go as far. When they won’t hold a charge anymore, they will not win any awards for environmental stewardship. However in San Francisco, Sunset Scavenger will recycle them if they’re left taped up in plastic on top of a black can. It’s almost impossible to find these batteries on new bikes, as they’ve been supplanted by LiPo batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are the most expensive, most energy-dense, and lightest weight battery option. LiPo batteries largely dominate the market now. Bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (20-90 miles). Using them with inappropriate chargers or puncturing them can make them explode (exciting!) They can be stored for long periods (1-2 months) without losing charge.

Front hub throttle assist

I tried the eZee front hub motor that comes standard on the Yuba elMundo. This is a 500 watt motor. You can tell there is a motor on the bike because the front wheel has an oversized hub. There are lots of other manufacturers that make front hub motors, and kits made in China, where electric bikes are fairly common, are often found on eBay. However eZee seems to be one of the more reputable manufacturers. On the elMundo there is also a battery attached to the frame, just behind the seat tube (that’s the part of the frame that attaches to the seat) and in front of the rear wheel; however the battery could be placed somewhere else on other bikes (a rear rack, a down tube, anyplace that would hold the weight). The suggested range for this assist system is 20 miles.

  • How it works: You activate the motor by twisting the right handlebar grip away from you. The more you twist, the more assistance you get. When the motor is on, your pedaling appears to add nothing. You can turn the motor on and off with a controller on the left side of the handlebars. The controller is pretty basic; just a switch with lights. The look screamed “high school science fair project” to me.
  • What it feels like: It feels like skitching. Skitching is when you are pulled along by something other than the bike, like when lunatic bike messengers grab onto a passing car. You’re hitching a ride. I have never skitched on a bike because that would be insane, but I have skied. Using a front-hub throttle motor feels a lot like being pulled on a rope tow while on skis (except obviously you’re on a bike).
  • Noise level: Medium. I definitely noticed the sound of the motor while I was riding. I wouldn’t call it noisy, but people walking along the sidewalk alongside noticed the sound, and it also muffles the noise of passing traffic somewhat.
  • Pros: You never have to work going uphill. The eZee motors work with many batteries. They are the Microsoft Windows of electric assists. The system is reasonably priced as electric assists go, although not so cheap that you wonder whether they’re a fly-by-night manufacturer.
  • Cons: A downside of using any of the throttle assist motors is that your power is limited to what the motor can pump out. Pedaling adds nothing. Unfortunately a 500 watt eZee front hub motor didn’t really have the kind of power needed to get two kids up steep hills in San Francisco. I saw one elMundo overheated and out of commission (two older kids on deck, bike on a hill) during our recent Kidical Mass/Critical Mass ride. I have heard other similar stories, although I haven’t personally witnessed them. There is also something weird going on with eZee right now; none of its products seem to be in stock. Using a throttle-operated assist doesn’t feel like riding a bike.
  • Battery type: LiPo. I’ve seen warranties on eZee batteries of either six months or a year.
  • Cost: around $1450 for this motor with a 36v battery.

Mid-drive throttle assist

This is the EcoSpeed Bullitt; the motor is not visible, but note the console above the handlebars.

I tried the EcoSpeed aftermarket mid-drive assist mounted on a Bullitt at Portland’s Splendid Cycles. This is either a 1000 watt or 1500 watt motor; the answer seems to depend on how you frame the question. Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub motors, so comparing watts between systems isn’t helpful. Unlike many assist systems, the controller did not limit the maximum speed (many state laws limit the top speed on assisted bicycles to 20mph). This discovery led to the following entertaining conversation. Me: “Uh, is this system even legal in California?” Splendid: “Well… no. Maybe. It’s a gray area, legally speaking.”

You can tell there is a mid-drive motor on the bike because there’s a bulbous protrusion near the chain wheel attached to a second chain. The motor drives the second chain and pulls the bike along. On the Bullitt, the batteries were mounted under the front box. You can fit a lot of batteries under the pallet of a long john, and mid-drive motors are pretty efficient; EcoSpeed claims their system can go 35-45 miles.

  • How it works: Twist the right handlebar grip and away you go. More twist, more speed. You can spin the pedals for fun but it’s not necessary, nor does it add any power or speed. The controller is a complicated-looking little computer on the handlebars that details the remaining battery power, speed, mileage, etc.
  • What it feels like: Hard to describe. It’s kind of like riding a train? I could feel that the motor was moving the bike underneath me, but it didn’t feel like I was being pulled; it wasn’t like a front hub motor.
  • Noise level: Unbelievably loud. It sounded like a moped.
  • Pros: This is an insanely powerful motor. It would be great for a construction company. Attach a trailer and you could haul, I don’t know, a load of concrete blocks up steep hills for miles on end. It would be overkill for hauling my kids around the city. Nonetheless, they thought it was wildly entertaining. They still ask about “the fast motor” sometimes.
  • Cons: It’s really noisy and really expensive. It may or may not be street-legal. The motor is so powerful that evidently it sometimes breaks chains on bikes. Using a throttle assisted bike doesn’t feel like riding a bike. To be honest the EcoSpeed scared me a little. I think this assist is best suited to someone who really understands the mechanics of electric assists. I am not that person.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The battery supplied by EcoSpeed has a two year warranty. There’s an option to supply your own battery.
  • Cost: $4,195 for the motor with battery, $150 for the computer.

Mid-drive pedal assist

Two types of bikes at The New Wheel: the Focus has a mid-drive pedal assist, the Ohm next to it has a BionX assist.

I tried a Panasonic mid-drive pedal assist on a purpose-built electric bike at The New Wheel in San Francisco, a BH Emotion Diamond Wave+. Some of the European assisted bikes have really weird and complicated names, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to refer to this bike as the Emotion because that was the name emblazoned on the down tube.

The Emotion has a 250 watt motor that’s built into the frame of the bike; you can tell it’s there because the chain guard looks really fat, like it’s been pumped up on steroids. Because the manufacturer built the system into the bike the torque/motion sensor is hidden inside the frame. There is also a battery mounted behind the seat tube and in front of the rear tire. Like many of the higher-end electric assist bikes, it comes with lights, fenders, chain guard and rack; this bike is designed to be used for transportation, not as a toy.

Mid-drive motors are so efficient that it would be a mistake to think that the comparatively low wattage means that you’re sacrificing power. On this bike I could easily scale hills that I’m fairly certain would have knocked out the eZee entirely. (The New Wheel is cleverly located near some of San Francisco’s more scorching hills. In my neighborhood the hills top out at a 25% grade; there are steeper hills near the shop.)  The BionX and EcoSpeed motors could handle the same hill; in fact I was riding with a friend who was on a BionXed bike (350 watt motor) at the time and he was just peachy. However the suggested range of the Emotion was 45 miles, whereas the suggested range of the BionX bike he was riding (an Ohm) was 35 miles.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the left side of the handlebars where you set an assist level of low, medium, or high (or off). Once it’s on it sends power as you pedal to multiply your effort. On low I wanted to gear down to make pedaling comfortable. On high, gearing down for the hill was optional.
  • What it feels like: Using the mid-drive pedal assist motor felt like riding a beach cruiser along the waterfront regardless of how steep a hill I attempted to scale. People do that kind of thing for fun on vacation. If you ride on a lot of hills already, the experience of using a mid-drive pedal assist is both intoxicating and a little spooky. If you always wanted to ride a bike but don’t because you live on a steep hill, this bike is a dream come true.
  • Noise level: The motor itself is silent. There was a slight rattling from the chain when the motor was running. It was fairly quiet but I noticed it, although someone walking on the sidewalk next to me wouldn’t have.
  • Pros: I like all of the pedal-assist systems because they feel like you’re riding a bike, but you don’t have to suffer (unless you want to). However this system is probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever used in that it doesn’t require you to think about how you’re riding: set the assist and forget it. The mid-drive motor works with internally geared hubs. The motor and battery are unobtrusive. There is a neat feature on most of the European assisted bikes, the “walking assist”, where you can push a button and the bike gives a trickle of power that makes it feel like you’re walking a bike that weighs 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds.
  • Cons: The biggest con is that these systems are currently only built into one-person commuter bikes (but see below for notes on the Stokemonkey). So although you could add a child seat to a bike like this, there isn’t any way to use the assist system to haul serious cargo or two kids, even though the motor is capable of handling those loads. Beyond that there’s only trivial stuff. If you’re using to riding a bike on hills, learning to use this kind of assist appropriately can be a little weird. The goal is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm and not bear down on the hill, or even necessarily shift down (unless it would make it easier to maintain cadence). I had to remind myself not to *try* to climb the hill. It was like The Matrix: “There is no hill.” But if you haven’t been riding on hills a lot, this won’t be an issue. You’ll take to it immediately. Another minor issue is that people who like to tinker get frustrated that these are closed systems; you can’t mess around with the bike. However I have trouble believing that people like that would have the slightest interest in this kind of bike anyway.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The entire bike has a two-year warranty.
  • Cost: The entire bike, including the electric assist, costs $3,300 at the New Wheel; they offer 12-month 0% interest financing as well.

The Stokemonkey

Once upon a time, there was an aftermarket mid-drive pedal assist system specifically meant for cargo bikes , the Stokemonkey (designed and sold by Clever Cycles in Portland). Although the motor was created for longtail cargo bikes, Stokemonkeys have also been used on front loading box bikes (this is not recommended by the manufacturer, however).  I have, sadly, never ridden a bike with a Stokemonkey. However reports from people who have ridden them claim that the motor is silent, the assist is seamless, and that a stoked, fully-loaded cargo bike can easily climb any hill. The Stokemonkey was withdrawn from production when the cost of parts increased, but is apparently coming back at an unknown (to me, at least) future date and price. Yeehaw!

Rear hub assist that responds to torque

The BionX system can go on any bike with a rear derailleur, including this Yuba Mundo.

I have now ridden two different bikes with aftermarket BionX pedal assists, both in Portland: a Surly Big Dummy and a Bullitt. In both cases the motor was the PL-350 (350 watts), which is the model recommended for climbing steep hills. The BionX controller gives you the option of choosing between four levels of assist, which range from a 75% assist to 300% assist. There is also a thumb switch that acts as throttle, giving the bike a burst of power at the highest level. This is a handy feature when you’re crossing an intersection. The BionX system only provides an assist if you’re moving at least 2 mph, however, so the initial start has to be powered by the rider. This ensures that the bike won’t jerk forward if you accidentally brush a pedal while stopped.

The BionX is a rear hub motor. You can tell it’s there because the hub of the back wheel is much larger than normal. The (proprietary) battery comes in two versions. One is an odd and obtrusive tear-drop shape, which can be mounted in a couple of different places but usually goes on the down tube. The other is a less-obvious flat pack that mounts below a special rack. Although the rack mount is unquestionably more attractive, I have heard from more than one bike shop that the rack mount can be problematic, because that much weight placed high on the back of the bike can make it very tippy. Add kids to the rear deck and the problem is intensified.

The BionX system is an unusual pedal assist system for two reasons: first, it responds to torque, and second, it has regenerative braking.

The BionX provides more or less assist depending on how hard you press on the pedals. For this reason, riding with an assist feels the same as riding without the assist, except you’ve grown massively stronger: push down hard on the pedals and you rocket forward. For people who’ve been riding on hills for a while without an assist this is an intuitive system to use because it mirrors the way they already ride.

Regenerative braking means that as you go downhill and brake, the battery recharges a little. This is a little bit of a gimmick, but not totally. For some reason, many people I talk to about electric assists to seem to think that pedaling the bike should provide all the charging they need for the assist system, as though an assisted bike were some kind of perpetual motion machine. I suppose this is technically possible, but only if you worked exactly as hard as you did on an unassisted bike, in which case, what would be the point of having an assist? Setting aside the expectation of a free lunch, however, regenerative braking has some advantages. The first advantage is that you can use the system to slow the bike while going downhill by setting the controller to a negative assist, turning it into a hub brake. On steep hills where brakes can overheat, which are all over San Francisco, this feature is outstanding. I am paranoid about brakes, so the news that BionX assists came with an independent second braking system had the same effect on me as a face mask full of nitrous oxide at the dentist. Whee! The second advantage is that regenerative braking can decrease range anxiety, because after going downhill you have a little bit more range.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the right handlebar that allows you to set an assist level; there are four levels of assist (and four levels of negative assist that act as a brake). There is also a thumb switch that acts like a throttle and gives a burst of power at the highest level of assist. The controller is also a computer that provides information on speed, distance traveled, and remaining battery life. It is a slick little machine, the iPhone of controllers. Once an assist level is set it sends power to multiply your effort. You can set an assist level and forget it, and just ride around faster than usual with no fear of hills.
  • What it feels like: They call this system BionX for a reason. When it’s on it makes you feel like you’ve suddenly developed super strength, but without the sordidness, health risks or expense of taking performance enhancing drugs. Because it responds to effort (torque), it really does feel just like riding an unassisted bike, except that the experience has become much, much easier. You still use the gears, but don’t ever slow down so much that you wobble on the hills.
  • Noise level: Completely silent.
  • Pros: This system feels more like riding a bike normally than any other assist I’ve used, and yet is powerful enough that I had no trouble hauling two kids up steep hills. In Portland, riding the BionXed Bullitt, I didn’t even need the highest level of assist to clear the local hills without difficulty on brutally hot days. On the hottest day we were in Portland (with a high of 105F), however, I did turn the assist to the highest level and it allowed us to go fast enough to catch a breeze even though I was putting in minimal effort because I feared I might pass out from the heat.
  • Cons: The BionX system currently only works on bikes with a rear derailleur and not with internally geared hubs (however BionX will be releasing a system with a 3-speed internally geared hub next year; this system will only be for purpose-built assisted bikes, however, as the torque sensor has to be built into the frame by the manufacturer). Having to get the speed up to 2mph before the assist kicks in can make starts on a heavily loaded bike very wobbly. There is no walking assist, which would be helpful. (If you make the mistake of trying to use the throttle button as a walking assist, as I once did, the bike will lurch ahead faster than you can follow it.) The BionX system is proprietary and does not allow the use of less expensive batteries from other manufacturers. This really ticks off people who like to tinker with their assists: BionX is the Apple of electric assists.
  • Battery type: LiPo. BionX offers a two year warranty.
  • Cost:  Ranges from $1200-$1800. The more expensive systems are better hill climbers and have greater range.

My conclusion

After riding all of these systems, the one that seemed best suited for our needs was the BionX (but how about a walking assist, BionX?) However, because the battery technology for all electric assists is still a little spotty, I wouldn’t get an assisted bike without the kind of gearing that would have a sporting chance of getting me up serious hills if the battery failed. Our new cargo bike has a wide range of gears.

Our needs are not everyone’s needs. I suspect a mid-drive pedal assist bike would be the best choice for an inexperienced rider facing steep hills. If I wanted to carry seriously heavy loads on a cargo bike, an EcoSpeed would be the better choice (or if it were available, a Stokemonkey). Personally, I didn’t really like being pulled along by a front hub motor, and the version I tried was underpowered for San Francisco hills. However many people like these motors better–I recently talked to one dad who wouldn’t consider any other kind of assist–and it’s possible to buy stronger assists for a front hub. Moreover there are some relatively inexpensive front hub systems available. Battery experience with these systems may vary.

No electric assist with any longevity is inexpensive, and some of them cost more than the bike itself. However I know many families in San Francisco who ride bikes but own a second car only to get the kids to school on top of a steep hill or because they can’t get a week’s worth of groceries home on a bike. Compared to car ownership, an electric assist is a bargain indeed.

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Filed under car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

Cargo bike pocket reviews

Bikes lining up at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

We have tried riding a lot of family bikes over the last month, and for that matter, the last year. We didn’t try everything, although it sometimes felt like it. There are a lot of bikes left that could work for other people. I learned after reading Totcycle’s excellent review of midtails that it’s possible to review bikes you’ve never even ridden so: here goes!

Hard to categorize family bikes (that we have actually ridden)

There are some other configurations out there as well: Family Ride has a Bianchi Milano commuter bike fitted with both a front seat and a rear seat. However that kind of setup starts to get a little difficult once the combined ages of the kids get above about six years. Furthermore, a bike like that is going to need some aftermarket accessories: a decent center stand to keep it from falling over and some way to carry non-kid cargo (like diapers and snacks) are two big considerations.

Cycle trucks

A cycle truck doing a headstand at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Cycle trucks are bikes with a huge front-end loader that allows people to carry a ton of stuff there. Cycle trucks are similar to a normal bike with a frame-mounted front rack, but typically they have a smaller front wheel too. I don’t hear much about cycle trucks for family biking, as they’re mostly used as delivery bikes. However for one-child families, a cycle truck can be a neat way to haul a bunch of groceries and gear using the front rack/basket, with a younger kid in a front seat behind the handlebars, or an older kid in a rear seat. I could also  imagine putting two (younger) kids on a cycle truck, one in front and one in back, although you’d want to be careful about weight and balance.

Civia Halsted: The Halsted is recommended as a one-kid hauler by Joe Bike, who wrote an excellent summary of what it can do. I also recently learned there’s a family, bikeMAMAdelphia, riding with the Halsted and a cute little boy in a front Yepp seat. This bike looks like a lot of fun, and seems as though it would be good for city families given its relatively petite size. We didn’t take a test-ride because we didn’t make it over to Joe Bike but we knew we wouldn’t be getting one regardless because given our kids’ ages it would be a one-kid bike. The Halsted seems to run about $1,200.

There are some other cycle trucks out there, but this design hasn’t taken off as a kid-hauler in the way that other cargo bikes have.

Longtails

Family Ride carries my daugher and her youngest on her iconic pink Surly Big Dummy

Longtails are the bikes I see most often hauling kids and cargo here in these United States. They are competitively priced relative to most box bikes (e.g. “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows”) and most of them can handle hills, which feature prominently in the terrain of many West Coast cities, including mine. They look like normal bikes and ride like normal bikes except that someone streeeeeeetched the back out so they can be used to carry cargo and kids in the extra space between the rider and the rear wheel. Two kids can fit on the rear deck with enough space to limit fighting, and there’s also room for a front seat for little kids in the front. Reviews and links are in alphabetical order by manufacturer.

Kona Ute: The Kona Ute is the elder sibling of our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Unlike the MinUte, the deck is long enough to hold two kids with breathing room. We could have managed a test ride of this bike through our local bike shop, but we ultimately didn’t because friends and acquaintances that had ridden it with kids all said that the rear deck is so high that the bike never really felt stable. Only people over six feet reported getting comfortable with it. As a cargo bike, with the load down low in the panniers, the Ute is apparently fantastic. However we didn’t find anyone who’d stuck with the Ute as a family bike long-term; they’d all switched to other bikes, most frequently the Big Dummy or the Mundo. There are great prices on this bike on secondhand, which may be worth investigating for tall parents. List price is $1,300.

Sun Atlas: The Sun Atlas is the cheapest of the longtails (cargo bikes are generally not cheap) at an astonishing price of less than $700. We didn’t take a test ride of this bike for two reasons: first, we didn’t make it to Joe Bike when we were in Portland and no one else had it in stock, and second, the components, as one might expect given the price, are not great. San Francisco is pretty hard on bikes and we have replaced many parts on the Kona MinUte already (brakes, wheels, pedals, tires, derailleur guide) due to local conditions. This has grown tiresome given that Matt needs to ride that bike almost every day, and the days he doesn’t need it, I usually do. We knew that we wanted a bike this time that wouldn’t constantly need to go to the shop. But for people who live in less difficult conditions or ride less frequently, this could be a good option. Carfree with Kids considered this bike, and there are discussions of it on the websites of Joe Bike and Clever Cycles. Note that there appears to be some disagreement as to whether it would work for shorter riders.

How to spend a Sunday afternoon: Meet friends from school, ride around on cargo bikes.

Surly Big Dummy: Our experience riding this bike is here. There are so many other reviews of this bike on the internet that I didn’t bother to sort through them.

Trek Transport/Transport+: Trek recently released the Transport and Transport+ cargo bikes; the Transport+ is sold with an electric assist. It has a very interesting rear bag design that looks as though it can carry quite a lot of stuff, but with those side loader bars this bike appears to be even wider than the Yuba Mundo. Trek specifically states that the Transport is not designed to carry passengers, not even on a child seat. We didn’t look for one to try because we wanted a bike to carry our kids.

Put a FreeRadical on it, Portland.

Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish: The Xtracycle FreeRadical isn’t really a bike per se but a longtail attachment that can be added to an ordinary bike. It is the ancestor of the American longtail. The Xtracycle Radish is a FreeRadical attached to a donor bike for people who don’t have one of their own. We didn’t seriously consider a FreeRadical because they are reported to be unstable above about 70 pounds of weight and our kids together weigh more than that. They also have a reputation for flex on hills, and there are a lot of those where we live. But for people in flatter locales (which is, okay, basically everyone) or with younger kids, or a single kid, this is a very cost-effective way to start family biking. Plus it gives you access to the many wonderful Xtracycle accessories. The Xtracycle catalog is so extensive and complicated that I have trouble figuring out how much stuff costs though. Davey Oil keeps promising to write more about his beloved Wheelio, a Japanese mixte bike that he Xtracycled. Car Free Days has written for years about their Xtracycles, which did in fact make them car-free.

Xtracycle EdgeRunner: The Xtracycle Edgerunner (link goes to the Momentum review) is the first bike that seems to have been developed specifically for families who are riding in very hilly terrain. Thank you, Xtracycle! Our first experience test-riding this bike is here. Later I wrote an updated review of the 2014 EdgeRunner. The verdict: the EdgeRunner is a category-killer, the best longtail we have ever ridden.

Yuba elMundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Yuba Mundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Midtails

Our MinUte chats up some other school bikes at one of the courtyard racks

As of 2012, three companies had developed a new kind of cargo bike: the midtail. (Okay, update in December 2012: the first midtail was really the venerable Workcycles Fr8. At first I’d classified it as a longtail, but it is short enough–although much too heavy in its kid-hauling incarnation–to fit on a bus bike rack, so I’m now calling it a midtail.) The first American midtail was the Kona MinUte, and it was enough of a hit that two more companies have now developed similar designs: Yuba, a company in Sausalito developing heavy-duty family bikes, and Kinn, a new startup in Portland making only a midtail. As the name implies, midtails are like a longtail, but shorter. The big advantage of the shorter length is that (most of) these bikes are transit friendly: they can fit on a bus bike rack or Amtrak (given some maneuvering). The best place to learn about these bikes is Totcycle’s outstanding summary.

If your kids are widely-spaced, say more than three years apart, you could fit an infant seat on the front of a midtail and put the older one on the deck behind. Then when the little one outgrows the front seat, the older is likely to either be riding solo or riding a trailer bike. Or you might be able to swing a couple more years with one on the front using a Leco top tube seat (which–fair warning!–is not suitable for all bikes). The midtail, which has much more cargo-carrying capacity than a normal bike, also appeals to non-parents looking for a normal-looking bike to haul groceries and other loads that would otherwise require attaching a trailer.

Our first bike was a midtail, the Kona MinUte. Like all midtails it can carry one kid on the rear deck (two kids can fit there too, but only if they’re in a good mood). The rear deck can also be fitted with a child seat for younger kids. We’ve never found a seat necessary once our kids reached three years, but your mileage may vary, and there are seats for older kids if so (the Bobike Junior or Yepp Junior). Adding a seat cushion is a nice touch.

Kona MinUte: Our experience riding this bike is here. Kona can’t decide whether it’s going to keep making this bike or not. As of 2014, they are not producing it, but recently promised to resurrect it. I’ve posted a few times about our MinUte; it is an underrated bike, in large part I think because of Kona’s indecision about whether or not they really want to be in the cargo/family biking market.

I'm embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

I’m embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

Workcycles Fr8: The Fr8 is a European midtail that has the capacity, unlike most of these bikes, to carry an child in front that is over the length/weight limit of a normal front child seat. The front seat mounted to the top tube is a saddle, and really best for kids old enough to balance. A big advantage of the Fr8 is the ability to keep two kids separated and still carry a bunch of stuff (the Fr8 accepts standard panniers and has a huge front rack), or to carry three kids after adding two rear seats. However this is a Dutch bike designed for the flat flatlands of the Flatherlands and it weighs 75 pounds, reportedly can’t go up more than a mild hill, and isn’t recommended for an electric assist. (There is evidently a lighter version coming recently or soon called the Gr8.) We live in San Francisco: there is no way. I still feel like I should have ridden this bike when we were in the shop, and I regret that I didn’t. It was 100 degrees that day and we were just so tired because we’d already ridden a half dozen other bikes that morning. If I lived someplace flat I would not have skipped trying this bike, even though the base model costs $2,200. It looked indestructible and is supposed to have a very smooth ride, and there are a lot of nice features like lights, a full chain guard, and fenders included in the price. Mamafiets wrote a nice review of the Fr8.

Yuba Boda Boda: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Kinn Cascade Flyer: We didn’t try this bike in 2012 because it wasn’t released yet. The Kinn is a gorgeous midtail based on a mixte frame, which means that the top tube slopes down toward the seat so it’s easier to step on and off. There are some very clever features on this bike: part of the deck rotates out 180 degrees to hold wide loads or make a better seat; it has a lockbox integrated into the rear deck, the passenger footpegs are adjustable, and it appears to have bars below the deck that will hold standard panniers. The Kinn is the only midtail that allows the attachment of a Follow-Me Tandem. Regrettably, it was made by tall people and has huge wheels, like the MinUte, so may not be the best choice for shorter riders. We still have yet to ride it, because it is a hard bike to find. It went into a tiny production run in Fall 2012 (30 bikes) and sold them for about $2,000; a second small production run followed in 2013. The extra cost gives you those clever design features, nicer parts, and a bike built in the USA.

Box bikes

Our son is almost four feet tall and he still fits on the Brompton with me.

Most parents love front box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” because the kids are in front where you can see them and talk to them. When we first started thinking about biking with our kids this didn’t seem like an important consideration. The more we rode with them the more we started to care. I ride the Brompton, which has a front child seat, in places that I probably shouldn’t (it’s not a great hill climber) just because I love having my kids in the front. I can see them and they lean back and look at me. They get a great view and are much more engaged in what’s going on. And my son will sometimes throw his arms around mine to hug me while we’re riding the Brompton and shout, “I LOVE YOU, MOMMY!” I have no words. I will keep him on that seat until he’s taller than I am.

See what I mean? You can put all kinds of stuff in a box bike.

So: front box bikes are cool. They’re also really good haulers, because they have a cargo box. You can carry stuff in a box bike that would never fit in a car, like bookshelves. Front box bikes are also expensive relative to longtails, and most of them have virtually no hill climbing capability. So that’s a bummer.

Babboe: The Babboe is similar to the Bakfiets in looks, listing at around $2,500 instead of $3,500. This is evidently a very popular bike in the Netherlands, and they are planning a roll-out to the US in September 2014 (online at least). Here’s a 2012 review from a family in Ottawa, and a 2013 updated review from bikeMAMAdelphia. These reviewers suggest that the price difference may reflect to some extent what comes standard on the bike (e.g. the Bakfiets comes with a rear rack, the Babboe does not) and the quality of parts (e.g. saddles and tires), but many families are happy making those kinds of compromises for a more affordable price–the same kinds of decisions come up in shopping for longtails as well.

Bakfiets: This is the bike people think of when they think about family box bikes. Our experience riding it is here. There are many other reviews of this bike out there, but one of the best I found was written by a father on the one-year anniversary of getting the bike.

Bullitt: Our experience riding this bike is here. It is one of the rare front-loading box bikes that can climb hills. (This is the bike we bought.)

Four kids pile into the Largo. It was hard to get them to take turns.

CETMA Margo/Largo: I really wish I’d tried this bike too. There weren’t any in stock at the shops we visited (and for that matter, at the shops we didn’t visit). I did see one at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call, and the kids loved it. They were piling four at a time into the box and riding around. The pros of the CETMA, from what I’ve read, are that it offers a very stable ride, can climb at least moderate hills, and that it’s relatively easy to add an electric assist, at which point it can climb steep hills. What’s more, the frame splits into two parts, making the resulting package small enough to transport easily. The CETMA costs $2,850 for a complete bike, although this price does not include the box, which sells for $300. When you add in all the extras you’d get on a Bakfiets, like lights, chain guard, fenders, seatbelts, and so forth, it’s probably comparable. However much of the bike can be customized, because all CETMA bikes are made by one guy who formerly lived in Eugene but recently moved to California. As a result, he stopped producing bikes in June 2012 and began filling them again in October 2012. This meant that we would have had to fall for this bike very hard, because getting one would involve a long wait indeed. Without a test ride that wasn’t going to happen. That said, one of the reasons we got the Bullitt was that its narrow profile made it easier to ride on the busy streets of San Francisco, and the CETMA bikes are definitely not that narrow. I found a video review from one happy customer (but: six months to get the bike!) and a written review from a less-happy customer.

[updated] Christiania 2-wheeler: This is a dark horse box bike that I had never even heard of until I read the comments on the original post. One mom riding a Christiania wrote an extremely detailed review of the bike, as well as how it works for their family, with some great thoughts on similar bikes in its class as well.

Gazelle Cabby: Clever Cycles used to stock the Gazelle Cabby, but they didn’t have one when we visited and no one else did either. The Cabby is distinctive in part because it has a fabric rather than a wooden box. The box actually folds up from the top, and with the top edges together it can be locked with stuff inside, which is pretty neat. In addition, the folding box means that the bike can be made very narrow, which makes parking it much easier. However I wonder about the durability of the fabric of the box, and like most box bikes it’s slow and supposedly hard to get up hills. It is a Dutch bike so it comes with lights, a chain guard, fenders, and a rear wheel lock. When it’s in stock Clever Cycles sells it for $2,800. Family Ride has ridden the Cabby twice (1, 2), and a couple of other families have written up their impressions as well. And in 2013, bikeMAMAdelphia weighs in again with a test ride.

Metrofiets: Our experience riding this bike is here. It can handle hills.

Shuttlebug (and Joe Bike Boxbike): These made-in-Portland bikes are no longer in production.

Urban Arrow: The Urban Arrow is a fascinating take on a front box bike. In 2014, we finally had the chance to ride it for a review. It has a lot of interchangeable parts, so the bike can switch from being a family bike with seats for kids to a cargo hauler with a locked box. It’s also possible to swap out the entire front end and turn it into a cycle truck. Unusually, it comes standard with an integrated mid-drive electric assist, so it is capable of handling hills. However when we were looking it wasn’t available in the US, and given the long lead time (it had been “coming soon!” for three years) I assumed it would never be. As of March 2013, the Urban Arrow is now available in the US: read about bikeMAMAdelphia’s test ride! Here’s a 2013 update on life with the Urban Arrow, again from bikeMAMAdelphia. This bike has become easier to find in the US as of 2014, but it’s still pretty elusive. Note that there have been reliability issues with the first-generation Daum motors, and a couple of shops have reported that Bosch’s support for the second-generation motors has been somewhat spotty. Buying from a trustworthy shop is critical for all assisted bikes. 

Winther Wallaroo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Tandems

This is a tandem for grownups, but you could put kid-cranks on it.

Tandems are fun! Okay, we’ve never ridden one, but they sure look fun. One friend rides a triple tandem with his daughters to school. Car Free Days just rode two tandems down the West Coast as a summer vacation. My kids are very excited about the idea of tandems, because riding a tandem would allow them to pedal, which they think is cool. Tandems are also interesting because as a couple of people have now pointed out to me, they have solved the cargo bike braking issue. Modern tandem bikes typically have two sets of brakes: hub brakes to slow the bike and wheel brakes to stop them. Both are controlled by the captain (the rider steering, who usually sits in front, although not always). With two sets of brakes, it’s possible to slow and stop a heavily loaded bike without the brakes overheating, and with a backup system you’re less likely to launch off the edge of a hill if one set of brakes doesn’t have enough stopping power by itself. When I learned that I was even more excited by the idea of a tandem bike. However a weakness of these bikes is that they’re not great for carrying cargo (they usually hold a set of standard panniers at most, plus whatever riders want to carry on their bodies). In addition, for situations where one person gets off one place and another gets off somewhere else, like our commute, it would be weird (and heavy) to haul around an empty bike. On the up side, with everyone on board and pedaling, they’re supposed to go really fast.

This is Shrek 2.

Bike Friday triple tandem: The PTA president at our son’s school and his partner bought a Bike Friday triple tandem on eBay to take their daughters to school. It is big and green, so they call it Shrek 2. My kids go nuts for this bike. ALL kids go nuts for this bike (except for their girls, who are used to it). They offered us the chance to ride it for a couple of weeks this summer while they were away and I was so excited. However our daughter, at age three, is still too small to fit on the bike and so we decided to wait until she was taller (otherwise there would be meltdowns when her brother could ride and she couldn’t). We had hoped to try riding this bike in 2013, but unfortunately I was hit by a car, and while I was incapacitated they swapped it for an Xtracycled tandem. The advantages of a triple tandem bike are pretty obvious: a parent can take two kids somewhere and get help going up hills, plus the kids are excited to help pedal and don’t get cold because they’re doing some work. Plus the coolness factor is off the charts; practically everyone riding in San Francisco recognizes this bike. A downside is that the bike is really long. I have no idea what a triple tandem would cost new; it was custom before they scored it on eBay.

Buddy Bike: The Buddy Bike is another Joe Bike production. It allows special needs kids to ride in the front of a tandem bike holding onto the handlebars. But because the handlebars are quite long the parent in back is really controlling the steering. This is such a lovely idea, although it’s a specialized market. We didn’t try it because our kids don’t fit the profile and because we didn’t make it to Joe Bike (which I am really kicking myself about as I write this).

Circe Helios family tandem:  I heard about the Circe Helios from a blog reader. It’s a longtail! It’s a tandem! It fits on public transit! It’s not available in the United States! [update: Yes it is! College Park Bicycles in Maryland is now importing the Circe Helios. They say it is in stock but have no details or prices on their website, which is bike123.com.] The Circe Helios has 20” wheels, in part to keep the length down to public transit compatibility (I’m not sure whether it would really fit on a bus rack, or just British trains). The back end can be switched from a long tail that holds to two child seats and cargo to a tandem seat with room for a rear child seat (and cargo bags). The stoker seat in the rear can be adjusted to carry any size rider from about a three-year-old to an adult. A couple could buy this bike and keep it through two kids learning to ride, then switch back to riding it solo as a longtail or as a couple in its tandem form when the kids grew up. It’s a lifelong bike.

Outside of Counterbalance Cycles, where we did not try riding a tandem.

Co-Motion PeriScope: When we were in Seattle we had the chance to try a Co-Motion PeriScope at the very friendly Counterbalance Bicycles, a shop located right on the Burke Gilman trail. Co-Motion makes tandems noted for their hill climbing chops. I spent a lot of time convincing my son, who was in a very grouchy mood after falling off a BMX bike he’d been riding, that he wanted to try this bike. It was very disappointing when we discovered he was still about an inch too short to reach the pedals. The Co-Motion is a sport tandem not set up for commuting in any way; it didn’t even have fenders. But it looked like it would go really fast. I like that. We will return to Seattle again; my mom lives up there. When my son is taller, we will ride this bike. The model we almost tried cost about $3,000.

KidzTandem: The KidzTandem is a kid-in-front tandem bike that Clever Cycles sells. Having the kids in front on a tandem has the same advantages as having the kids in front in a box bike. We were very excited to try this bike, even though no one seemed optimistic about its ability to climb hills, and the review I found agreed. Unfortunately Clever Cycles had just sold the only one they had had in stock (“This has never happened before!”) It costs $2,000 and eventually they’ll get another one in stock. I think you can rent it when that happens, and Clever Cycles has very reasonable rental rates.

My husband: “That Onderwater is the goofiest bike I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Onderwater triple tandem: In one of those weird twists of fate, Clever Cycles did actually have a family tandem in the store, the Onderwater triple. It had been custom-ordered for another family and was already sold, so it wasn’t a bike we could test ride. It’s not a bike they usually stock. The Onderwater triple, like the KidzTandem, puts the kid in the front. Chicargobike has an Onderwater that they’ve written about. Like most of the Dutch bikes there are lots of creative ways to carry kids on this bike; in addition to the front stoker seats (up to two), there is an optional jump seat that can be attached in front of the parent, and it’s also possible to put a rear child seat on the back. So you could have up to five people on one bike, and three of them could pedal (no, Dutch families don’t wear helmets, thanks to all that protected infrastructure). Like all the Dutch bikes, it comes with all the goodies: lights, fenders, chain guard (on a tandem, no less). Like all the Dutch bikes, it weighs a ton and you couldn’t get it up a serious hill even if you were being chased by a horde of ravenous zombies. The triple tandem is a custom bike so pricing is unclear. [Update: There is now an Onderwater tandem roaming the streets of San Francisco–a dad riding his kids to school. He said that they make it up moderate hills.]

Tricycles

Matt is looking for a route that doesn’t have anything approximating a hill because we’re riding trikes.

We rode a couple of trikes, the Christiania and the Nihola. There are other trikes on the market (Bakfiets makes one, plus there’s the well-reviewed Winther Kangaroo, Family Ride rode the Triple Lindy, etc.), but I’ve never given them much thought because trikes are totally impossible on hills and we live in San Francisco. I think that they could be fun in flat cities.

Somebody stick a fork in me: I think I’m done for a while. Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comments!

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